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How Meanings are Made and Taken Apart: Reflections on Discursive Analysis

In an interview with the Religious Studies Project, professor Kocku von Stuckrad outlines interesting possibilities for discursive analysis. He describes an approach that “goes beyond terms” and also beyond examining political power structures. The interview brought up many important, broad themes that are discussed in the study of religion. This essay is an examination of some thoughts the interview brought up and provoked, also in relation to some practical realities of the academic world.

Discursive analysis has become an important theoretical approach in the study of religion. Seen through the discursive lens, religion is a concept that is being used by different people in different settings in a number of ways. The content of any concept is always changing, always negotiated and contested. Still, there is some room for confusion. This is, in part, because discursive analysis is not exactly a unified approach but rather a collection of approaches.

The type of discursive analysis von Stuckrad speaks of does not only include texts and usage of certain terms, (i.e. how different terms and themes are linked to one another so as to produce knowledge), but also includes institutionalised and materialised products of this knowledge. Von Stuckrad refers to “discourse of practices”, which definitely is a welcome link between language and the material reality, acted and experienced.

This approach goes beyond certain styles of critical discursive analysis, but power relations are not forgotten. As one becomes more aware of how academic knowledge, for example, inevitably shapes the discourses on almost any given theme, and these discourses in turn may shape or create actual practices and institutions, it becomes evident that scholars may actually hold a tremendous power. The next responsible thing to do is to turn a critical gaze to our own institutional links and what kinds of “knowledge agreements,” discursive compounds, we, together with our research, are standing on. As scholars of religion, or of any other subject for that matter, we should pay critical attention to our own position. When we as researchers pick up a concept and use it, we must be aware just how far from sterile, self-evident and unpolitical they are. They come with underlying assumptions, a whole history of negotiations and selection processes.

We must also be aware of how our participation in certain discussions may shape the world around us. In our view, this does not mean that researchers should shy away from these discussions, but that they should enter them understanding the possible weight. Academic knowledge, or language at the very least, will leak into the surrounding society one way or another. Studying topics under some political crossfire can especially attract expectations. For example, studying the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has gained attention from groups and individuals that promote the cause of this movement, and it is entirely possible that all the scholarly attention given to the movement will be pointed at as evidence that it is a movement to be taken seriously also in political debates – this has already been seen in the case of some neopagan groups.

A whole other problem is the fact that scholars from many fields, often cultural studies, have in recent years become quite aware of many possible audiences to their research, not all of which are of the good kind. We can only hope that hate mail and anonymous threats are not a growing phenomenon. And that this sort of publicity will not drive researchers away from the public sphere.

Examining these usages and often especially the power relations – who has the right to define the content of a concept – is at the heart of discursive analysis. And keeping an eye on power relations is more or less a necessity if one wants to dig into how concepts have evolved in time. The very concept of religion is a great example of the historical, setting-specific nature of language. All the more illuminating is to think about how the concept carried its Judaeo-Christian underpinnings into academic research and was used to conceptualize cultural systems that had no such concept in their own reference system.

When scholars start paying critical attention to their particular position and the load of their concepts and ideas, research becomes a consciously two-way process. In order to adequately examine the subject of our research, one must also take a good look at one’s own instruments. We must know them well in order to know what kind of information they can offer us about our subject. This sort of critical perspective should more or less go hand in hand with all research, not only studies that explore discourses.

As for practical applications, there are probably many different ways in which the genealogical point of view von Stuckrad suggests can be incorporated in actual individual research projects. As he points out in the interview, not all research projects need to be discursive analyses. Within a broader framework of discursive understanding, a wide range of methods can still be applied. Still, the discursive reflection should be described in the actual research. As researchers are always making decisions from a particular point of view, they should make an effort to make themselves more visible in the research. Apart from reflecting critically on one’s position and terminology, for example, it is important to report these processes. Only then can the reader examine the way the researcher has reached his or her conclusions.

But what exactly would be the most constructive way to incorporate this reflection in research papers and reports? We have heard warnings about using the chapter titled ‘reflection’ for pouring out all sorts of affiliations, engagements and other caveats, then going on with our research without giving these questions a further thought. This is hardly the kind of critical thinking we are looking for. Another question is, might there also be a risk that research papers become more massive and complex as more of the process is made visible in writing? Simultaneously, other kinds of demands are on the increase in the academia, such as writing as clear, succinct, and reader-friendly academic papers as possible. More transparency, fewer words. Luckily, we at least see developing academic writing further as a meaningful challenge.

Networked religion, blurring boundaries and shifts in the field of authority

Central to questions of authority is the ability to define the tradition; to define how scripture should be interpreted, and to tell orthodoxy from heresy.

A freehand commentary, published by the Religious Studies Project on 12 June 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Heidi Campbell on Religion in a Networked Society (10 June 2013)

The past 15 years or so have witnessed a period of swift development of the World Wide Web and a wide range of other information and communication technologies (ICTs).  It has also become a truism that individuals, communities and cultures are more interconnected than ever before. This can be seen in all areas of life from economics and entertainment to education, and politics. Religion is no exception, and scholars of religious phenomena have increasingly turned their gaze to the ways in which these new technological possibilities affect religious communities.  As the field of interest has developed, researcher’s foci and insights have followed suit.

The Religious Studies Project’s interview with Heidi Campbell focuses mainly on her recently published article which examines the emergence of both online religion and the way scholars have approached this phenomenon. A key aspect examined in the article is the blurring boundaries between religion online and offline. Campbell uses the term ‘networked religion’ to better grasp the phenomenon.

The questions addressed in the interview are hugely interesting, and the topic is also a tricky one. The impact modern ICTs have on religious communities and religious activity must be mapped in an increasingly fluid and rapidly changing environment, in which distinctions between online and offline, public and private, as well as member and non-member is difficult, and often impossible, to maintain.

Blurred boundaries

Even though it is still technically possible to talk about time spent online and offline, this distinction is, according to Campbell, becoming more and more blurred. In everyday experience, this development seems fairly self-evident, as it is facilitated by the evolving communication technologies themselves. 15 years ago most people only had access to Internet from one or two, clearly defined geographical locations. For me, these were the family computer in our living room, and the single enormous PC with Internet access at the local library (under the watchful eye of the librarian). Growing connection speeds, the development of smart phones and tablets, and increasingly widespread access to wireless networks has made the Internet available almost everywhere. Consequently, ‘being online’ may – and in many cases, has – become a constant feature of everyday life.

Heidi Campbell uses the term networked religion to describe the more or less fused online/offline religion emerging in the digital age. With this term, Campbell wishes to point out how religion has been affected by the new ‘socio-technological infrastructure’ and its logic, much like all other areas of society. The term ‘network’ is probably most well-known from Manuel Castells’ extensive work on the emergence of the network society and the various social implications of the development of ICTs. Network has become a common metaphor in social sciences, but also outside academia.

Campbell mentions five core aspects that constitute a networked religion. These are convergent practice, multisite reality, network community, storied identity and shifts in authority. Although the names are different and the topic discussed here more specialized, these themes strike a familiar chord to many general sociological accounts of developments in contemporary religiosity. Dr Teemu Taira, for example, has written on ‘liquid religiosity’ (2006), which he describes as being individualistic and this-worldly in orientation. In Taira’s view this type of religiosity typically emphasizes the authority of the individual. Spiritual seekership and mix-and-match religiosity is accepted and common. Community formations are often loose networks or ‘coatrack communities’ where individuals come and go as they please. All sorts of religious and spiritual self-help materials, fairs, teachers and groups form a fluid milieu, in which people create their individual spiritual roadmaps – or ‘storied identities’, to borrow Campbell’s terminology.

Even though Taira’s work operates on a rather general level and does not focus on the Internet or ICTs, they are clearly present in his views. Where else can you find as liquid religion as on the Internet, where moving from one society and information source to another is only a matter of clicking a mouse?

An interesting question is, how do we research this type of religiosity and religious communities that are ‘liquid’ or in the state of ‘flux’? I for one am only beginning to examine these tricky methodological issues. On a more quantitative level, all sorts of new computer programs for data mining and network analysis are being developed rapidly. Ethnographically, though, how is it possible to fruitfully approach this kind of networked religion which stretches over the divide between online communities and offline environments, in which memberships are not clearly defined, and even the teachings are more or less open source, available for use and modification?  I am eagerly looking forward to innovative approaches.

Religion and technology

New technologies affect religious practices both directly and indirectly. Religions old and new take up these new tools and move in to these new forums, actively adopting innovative ways of organization, communication and attracting members. Needless to say, these new possibilities are not merely a passive medium in the hands of religion. They may well give rise to new questions and challenges, ranging from practical issues, to ethical and theological dilemmas. They may also affect the expectations people have of their community and of life in general. Some forms of religion handle these changes well, others less so.

New technologies allow for new possibilities for organizing communities, and for communication within communities as well as with the surrounding society. They also create new possibilities for thought and imagination, and so may affect values, expectations, and even inspire the creation of new religions.

An example of such connection between technology and religious thought is presented by Jeremy Stolow in his article Salvation by Electricity (2008). His article examines the relationship between the Spiritualist movement of the early 19th century and the newly invented telegraph. Stolow examines the ways in which Spiritualism developed hand in hand with the new technologies, and how both its ideas and the formation of the movement were in many ways facilitated by the technology. To put things briefly, on a material level, the telegraph made it possible to create loose grassroots networks and share ideas globally. Spirit mediums also found publicity and possibilities of voicing their opinions, thereby challenging powers that be and negotiating anew the existing locations of authority.

On a less tangible level, the new technologies brought with themselves very powerful new imageries. In Spiritualism, one of the most powerful images was electricity. Similarly, the Internet and other ICTs may also have an effect on new religious imaginations. There are religious groups that can be reasonably called digitally based. They may have existed before the Internet started spreading, but the Internet has given them the kind of environment where they can create a relatively free community. One interesting example is the Open Source Religion Project, an online community in which people discuss and debate religious ideas. As the name suggests, Open Source Religion shares the logic of collectively creating something that everyone can develop and improve.

Shifts in authority

The questions of networked religion are also central to my own research project. I am currently studying the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a quasi-religious community that is usually categorized as a spoof religion or a satire with political aims. The aim of my study is to examine precisely the blurring of boundaries – not only the border between online and offline, but also the blurring between the realms of public and private, and of religion, humour and politics.

Campbell notes that, on the one hand, religious communities and individuals online may challenge the authority of traditional authorities. On the other, these traditional authorities themselves have in some cases begun to use these new spaces to reassert their authority. Even the pope has a twitter account.

Central to questions of authority is the ability to define the tradition; to define how scripture should be interpreted, and to tell orthodoxy from heresy.  In the case of many new religious movements, such as some neo-pagan groups, it is not so much about definitions within the tradition but the category of religion in general. This is especially visible in cases where a religious community attempts become a state-recognized religious institution. Having been denied this status, these movements often claim that the definitions used in this legal framework are biased in favour of more established scriptural religions, often Christianity. This in turn creates interesting dilemmas for the state, as it has to define what a religion is and what it is not. Religion was, after all, supposed to be private and consequently not a political issue.

All in all, the interview with Professor Campbell gives a good, concise account on where the development of religion online seems to be headed. This is no small achievement, given the huge complexity of the field of online religion, and I am looking forward to getting my hands on her article. A small problem in general summaries like this is that they often tend to lose edge and become difficult to grasp and apply on a more concrete level.  Nevertheless, I think networked religion seems like a promising tool in examining the messy reality.  In this commentary I have tried to open up some possible fields where Campbell’s formulations could be taken and applied to. The next step is the quest for fruitful research methods…

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Digital CameraHanna Lehtinen is a graduate student and currently an intern in Comparative religion in Turku University, Finland. She is working on her MA thesis on the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Her research interests include parody religions, religious innovation, evolving discourse on religion, and power relations in general. She has also written the essays Divine Inspiration Revisited and What should we do with the study of new religions? for the Religious Studies Project.

 

References

  • Stolow, Jeremy. 2008. Salvation by Electricity pp. 668–686 in Hent de Vries (ed.) 2008: Religion. Beyond a Concept. New York: Fordham.
  • Taira, Teemu. 2006. Notkea uskonto. Published in Eetos-series. Turku: Eetos.

What should we do with the study of new religions?

 

In the interview with Professor Eileen Barker, three broad themes are brought up. First, the definitions of ’new religious movement’ and ’cult’ are given a brief consideration. After this, Barker introduces the Inform network and its activities in distributing information and making the results of scientific research concerning new religious movements available to society at large. Finally, the future of the study of new religious movements as well as its contribution to the wider field of the study of religion is considered. In this text, I will focus mainly on the second theme: how the results of scientific research are put in practical use by Inform, and what kind of questions this brings up. Along with the interview, I make use of an article Barker has written on the same subject, What should we do about the cults?

The Information Network Focus on Religious Movements, or Inform for short, was founded by Eileen Barker herself in 1988. Behind the founding of the organization lies her observation that there was (and there still is) quite a lot of misinformation, rumours and hearsay about the new religious movements, or ‘cults’, as they often are labelled, and that this confusion created a lot of misunderstanding and ”unnecessary suffering”, as Barker herself puts it. This suspicion is present in the way the term ‘cult’ in itself carries connotations of something deviant, evil and criminal. Neutral information was not easy to find, since the movements themselves tended to offer a very bright picture, whereas the information produced by opposing parties, such as anti-cult movements, emphasized the negative sides. In addition, media contributed to the discussion by picking up only the extreme examples.

In a situation like this, providing scientific, as-neutral-and-objective-knowledge-as-possible about new religious movements is a reasonable thing to do. And this is what Inform is all about. The network collects, assesses and distributes balanced, objective-as-possible information about new religious and spiritual movements. This is done through consultation and publications as well as connecting people with relevant experts, arranging seminars, workshops and conferences. Their services are being used by very different parties, from government officials to convert´s conserned relatives.

Aside from just distributing information about new religious movements, Inform also provides venues for different interested parties to meet and exchange views. Involving the religious movements themselves, as well as their former members and cult-watch movements in seminars, for example, may help the parties to overcome some suspicions and misunderstandings.

Inform is definitely an inspiring example of how the work of scholars of religion can be put into practical use. Academics are often accused of living in their own little worlds, their heads full of fuzzy terminology and grand theories, and forgetting all about the real, messy world around them. And there just might be a grain of truth in that accusation. Not long ago, I read an article written by Tiina Raevaara, currently an independent Author and a blogger on Suomen Kuvalehti website. She brings up the fact that even though the ‘third task’ of universities (next to research and teaching) is to serve and benefit the society, the academics are often not willing to come out in the public to talk about their research, let alone voice their opinions. And while so few academics wish to do this, the ones who do are often frowned upon by the academic community. Raevaara claims in her blog entry, that researchers should get more guidance in how to interact with larger public, and encouraged to do so.

I do agree that universities and scientific community in general are an important part of the society, and should interact with it in a constructive way. This is not unproblematic, of course. Fear of losing one’s perspective lingers; fear of getting too involved. Who of us has not been warned about going native? Even though the very possibility of strict objectivity has been disputed long time ago, distance is still seen as vital for maintaining a proper scientific attitude and conducting valid research – as objective as possible. And even though an individual scholar might not lose her or his perspective, so to say, this might still happen in the eyes of the public. Especially in debates of great political weight, (social) scientists´ commitments and ideological backgrounds are called into question– even if these would not have anything to do with the results of a scientific research itself. As Barker mentions in the interview, she has received her share of such suspicion and accusations.

Inform is a good example of a contact spot between academia and the society at large. While holding up the ideals and methods of social sciences, the network benefits the public: government officials, media, religious groups, individual members of civil society, and more. They do this by offering what the scholarly community can offer: information and opportunities for open discussion. Both are equally important. People with different worldviews, religious and otherwise, must be able to deal with each other, so that society holds together. For this kind of interaction and negotiation to take place, it is important to have arenas where people can learn from one another and at least avoid conflicts rooted in simple misunderstandings.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

 

References:

Barker, Eileen 2006: What should we do about the cults?  Policies, perspective and the perspective of Inform. Published in Pauline Côté and Jeremy Grunn (eds) 2006: The New Religious Question. State Regulation or State Interference? Frankfurt, Peter Lang, ss. 371-394 (article can also be downloaded from the Inform website: http://www.inform.ac/node/1547)

Habermas, Jürgen 2008: Notes on a post-secular society. Published at the website signandsight.com http://www.signandsight.com/features/1714.html accessed May 14th

Raevaara, Tiina 2012: Tutkijat ja traumaattinen julkisuus. Blog entry on the website of Suomen Kuvalehti. (eng. ”Researchers and the traumatic publicity”.) http://suomenkuvalehti.fi/blogit/tarinoita-tieteesta/tutkijat-ja-traumaattinen-julkisuus accessed May 15th­

Divine Inspiration Revisited

 

When encountered for the first time, the idea of a fiction-based religion might seem quite ’far out’ and counter-intuitive. How is it possible to mix together religion (that, supposedly, deals with faith and so with a truth of some sort) and works of popular culture, which are clearly created by human imagination, and so are by definition not true?

And yet, this mixing does not seem to be a problem to the adherents of Jediism, Matrixism, and so forth. There are several groups that draw their inspiration from works of fiction, and yet declare religiosity. Apparently, fiction can offer inspiration to spiritual activities just as well as material traditionally regarded as spiritual and religious. What we seem to have at hand is a phenomenon that leaks out of our previous categories of religion, and in doing so poses a challenge to our understanding of religion and especially its connection to wider social and cultural phenomena.

The interview with Markus Davidsen explains comprehensively the basic ideas of a fiction-based religion. Davidsen defines a fiction-based religion as ”real religion in the real world, – which takes much of its inspiration from a fictional text”. Davidsen argues that these movements are more than fandom. For example, even though the adherents to Jediism do recognize the fact that Star Wars is fictional story, they still maintain that it refers to something that is real on some level. They might also argue, according to Davidsen, that all other religions are based on human invention as well, and so make the distinction between ‘real religion’ and their fiction-based religion less clear.

The aspect that interests me the most is the apparent diffusion of different ‘spheres’ of culture and society. In a fiction-based religion, an overlap of two categories is clearly present: religion and popular culture. But there are also other overlaps. For example, the argument that all religions are based on fiction seems like a very ’secular’ statement. So it seems that adherents to these new religious or spiritual endeavors have adopted certain ideas from a society in which traditional religions with their exclusive truth claims have largely lost their plausibility. As this introductory video to Pastafarianism puts it: ”(W)ith so many to choose from, how do we know which, if any, holds the truth?” But even adopting this view does not mean that religiosity would vanish altogether. Apparently, equally false can be inverted to equally true. Furthermore, it legitimizes the use of rather unconventional sources of spiritual inspiration. If all religions are ultimately based on human invention, what divides old prophecies and mythologies from the new ones?

Like many other forms of diffuse religiosity and spirituality of present day, fiction-based religions operate in an environment of open-ended systems, in which individuals are free to combine a view that suits their spiritual needs. Teemu Taira has called this type of religiosity ”liquid”, a term derived from Zygmunt Bauman’s work on liquid modernity. His work emphasizes the fact that we cannot handle religion as a distinct phenomenon separated from the broader societal and cultural context (Taira, 2006, 7-8). Coming closer to fiction-based religions, Carole M. Cusack has worked on what she calls ”invented religions”, which are new religions that openly declare their origin in human creativity. This term encompasses fiction-based religions as well as others, such as Discordianism and Church of the SubGenius, which are usually deemed as parody religions. Cusack also emphasizes the socio-cultural context of these religions, and her monograph Invented Religions. Imagination, Fiction and Faith shows how these forms of religiosity are a quite logical consequence of modern consumerism, individualism and appreciation for novelty. (Cusack, 2010 8-25.)

Taira describes liquid religiosity as being focused on the self. The experience of the individual is the most important religious authority. This is only logical in a liquid modern world, where great narratives have lost their plausibility, traditional identities are being deconstructed and external truths might prove fragile and change the next day (Taira 2006, 68-71,75). Consequently, what is ‘true’ for an individual is what matters to him or her individually. This is a very pragmatic sense of reality. If it works, it is true – at least true enough. This kind of view is naturally well suited for a highly pluralist situation, where increasing numbers of religious groups and identities exist next to each other. Taira also suggests that in liquid religiosity, there might be a shift in emphasis from intellectual content to the affective side of religiosity: meaningful feelings and experiences of empowerments it brings. (Taira 2006, 47-51.)

Fiction-based religions are a nice example of how different spheres of society and culture are actually tightly interntwined, and that they constantly affect and interfere with each others. Religion among other ‘spheres’ does not develop in a vaccuum. Also, as Davidsen concludes at the end of the interview, religion is ”something that happens in social interaction and negotiation”. Something is not religious per se, but it is made religious by people who claim it as such.

Religion does not disappear, even though some of its traditional forms might lose their value in the eyes of some people. But religion does change. Fiction-based religions are a good example of this change.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

 

References:

CUSACK, Carole M, 2010: Invented Religions. Imagination, Fiction and Faith. Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

TAIRA, Teemu, 2006: Notkea uskonto.  Published in the Eetos julkaisuja series. Turku: Eetos